About twenty years ago, a very young version of me decided that I needed to learn how to play piano bar. I was pretty ambitious back then (in somewhat unhealthy ways), and I felt that I needed to give myself experience playing a variety of styles professionally. That’s why I was involved in a rock band and a jazz fusion group, as well as working in a project recording studio. I wanted the experience of it.
So I went to the local music store and asked the salesman if they had any fake books. Fake books are under-the-counter books which have unauthorized versions of songs (usually just chord charts with a melody scratched out) that professional musicians use to play the hundreds of songs which make up the lexicon of jazz. If you have proficiency in a few fake books, you can play with any group of jazz musicians on the planet—because they play off these same charts too.
Armed with this compendium, I then wood shed most of the material. I was clunky at first, musically naive, but I was determined to do it right. I had to get up to speed on lots of jazz chords as well as really learn how to sight read melodies. And honestly, I was too young to have heard most of this stuff, so I had to learn them by actually learning them. Coltrane, Bill Evans, a little Miles Davis, Jobim, standards and show tunes. Eventually, I had enough material to land a steady gig in mid-town, playing for the after dinner crowds, and learning how to read a room and play to it.
There’s nothing like doing three or four sets of instrumental piano a few days a week to an indifferent crowd to get your chops up.
About a year ago, I began playing piano bar again, this time for a few restaurants in the local area. I’m still pulling out the fake book, but mostly now its piano and vocals, like Sting, John Mayer, old Carole King or Billy Joel, Simply Red, Ray Charles. (I only play “Piano Man” if the tip is big.) And it brings back all the old memories.
Playing piano bar gives you a different perspective on things. Sitting hour after hour, it can be an out of body experience at times. Sometimes I catch myself watching my fingers floating on the keys, seemingly detached from the music I’m making. I end up people watching, putting together the puzzle pieces of each table’s story. A man and a woman, probably dating, but he’s not really happy. Two older ladies, probably catching up with one another’s lives, one is divorced. A family with two teenagers, the son fidgets mindlessly, he doesn’t want to be here. A single man, drinking, don’t expect a tip from him. A husband and wife, older and married for a while, but they are very much in love.
I also sometimes wonder about the music itself. After all, I am being paid to be background music, a human juke box. I think to myself, does anyone care? Is anyone even listening? Does what I’m doing make any difference at all? It is the existential angst of the piano bar artist. Then I get a knowing nod or a kind and specific compliment and some money is placed in the tip jar.
It is a good thing to remind myself in those moments that my music always has two audiences: one horizontal and one vertical. The horizontal one is the people around me, those who care to listen anyway. And as an artist, one should always be grateful when someone chooses to listen. But the vertical one is the Audience who is always with me, always listening, always cares. He is both the giver and the recipient of my talents, the one to whom I really wish to please.
And I think God really does like to hear a little Billy Joel every once in awhile.